Hong Kong students form political party ahead of local polls

Hong Kong student leaders (from left) Agnes Chow, Joshua Wong and Oscar Lai marching to demand universal suffrage during a rally last year. Mr Lai, 21, and several other members of the student activist group Scholarism will run in local legislative p
Hong Kong student leaders (from left) Agnes Chow, Joshua Wong and Oscar Lai marching to demand universal suffrage during a rally last year. Mr Lai, 21, and several other members of the student activist group Scholarism will run in local legislative polls this year. Ms Chow and Mr Wong, both 19, are too young to stand for election but Mr Wong had earlier filed an application for a judicial review of Hong Kong's election laws to lower the minimum age for candidates to 18 from 21.PHOTO: REUTERS

Activist group's initiative to take part in elections likely to rattle leadership in China

HONG KONG • A group of young students seeking greater autonomy for Hong Kong is forming a political party to participate in local elections this year, a move that is likely to unsettle a Chinese leadership fighting multiple separatist movements within its borders.

"We want to take back our future," said Mr Joshua Wong, the leader of the group, Scholarism, which rallied students to stage protests that paralysed streets in several districts in 2014 as part of a campaign for democratic reform known as the Umbrella Movement.

In about a decade, Mr Wong said in an interview yesterday, the new party will push for a referendum that would let Hong Kongers determine whether to split from China after 2047, the year when Beijing's promise of 50 years of high autonomy and a "one country, two systems" governing principle in the former British colony expires.

"I'm certain the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would crack down on us, but that's not my concern."

Mr Oscar Lai and several other members of the group will run in local legislative polls this year. Mr Wong, 19, is too young to run. He filed an application for a judicial review of Hong Kong's election laws last October to lower the minimum age for candidates to 18 from 21, though the prospect of that happening before the elections is slim.

IT'S OUR FUTURE

We want to take back our future... I'm certain the Chinese Communist Party would crack down on us, but that's not my concern.

MR JOSHUA WONG, on forming a political party to take part in local elections.

"No one in the legislature right now has brought up the issue of Hong Kong's future after 2047," said Mr Lai, 21.

Johns Hopkins University associate professor of sociology Hung Ho Fung said it was a matter of time before people disenchanted with the pace of democratisation and the Umbrella Movement's failure to bring about changes started questioning Hong Kong's post- 2047 future.

More and more of the younger- generation activists "demand a fresh start of Hong Kong", he said. "The 2047 question becomes an opening for them to try."

If successful, Mr Lai and his allies would become the youngest legislators in Hong Kong. (The average age of the current members is over 50.) He declined to give more details until a formal announcement in April.

The move will probably unnerve the Chinese government, which condemned some Hong Kong protesters as "radical separatists" after a street battle last week in the retail district of Mongkok that left scores of protesters and more than 80 police officers injured.

  • Starting young

  • JOSHUA WONG, 19

    He founded the student protest group Scholarism when he was just 14 and led protests in 2012 that successfully prevented the introduction of a "Moral and National Education" school curriculum widely derided as Chinese Communist Party propaganda.

    Mr Wong went on to become a prominent leader of the Umbrella Movement, which brought parts of Hong Kong to a standstill for more than two months in 2014, calling for fully free elections for the city's Chief Executive.

    The undergraduate in politics and public administration has been charged with multiple offences, including inciting others to take part in an unlawful assembly and taking part in an unlawful assembly, which carry a jail term of up to five years.

    OSCAR LAI, 21

    Mr Lai is one of Scholarism's spokesmen. The social work student, who will complete his studies in July, experienced his first political event in 2003, when his parents took him to take part in massive street protests against the government's attempts to introduce laws perceived as a clampdown on dissent.

    According to a profile on the news portal post852.com, Mr Lai says his years of experience as a Boy Scout in school prepared him for life as a political activist, equipping him with the skills for crowd mobilisation, communication and administration.

    He plans to contest the Kowloon East ward in the Hong Kong's legislative elections in September, according to an interview published by The Stand news website on Wednesday.

    AGNES CHOW, 19

    She joined Scholarism in 2012 and cut her political teeth in the group's protests against the "Moral and National Education" school curriculum in 2012.

    The social sciences undergraduate came to prominence during the Umbrella Movement for being Scholarism's English spokesman and was nicknamed Queen of Scholarism for her good looks. But she drew controversy by quitting the spokesman duties at the height of the protests, citing fatigue and stress. She remains one of Scholarism's most high-profile members.

    Lee Seok Hwai

"China is going to face a serious dilemma over Hong Kong," Prof Hung said. "If China sees a great threat of separatism in Hong Kong and resorts to heavy-handed repression like what it did in Tibet and Xinjiang, the international community will surely see the end of 'one country, two systems', and Hong Kong's role as an offshore financial centre will be in jeopardy."

The CCP issued a directive last month calling for further effort to foster patriotism in young people nationwide, including Hong Kong, to maintain national unity.

Still, any overt effort to instil Chinese patriotism in the city's schools could backfire, as happened in 2012 when the government tried to mandate a "national education" curriculum in schools that dispensed favourable views of the CCP. The attempt was halted after protests led by Mr Wong.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2016, with the headline 'HK students form political party ahead of local polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe